The true story of how one man escaped a North Korean political prison camp tends to elicit a wide arrange of emotions among readers, including disgust and anger.
But it’s the emotion of empathy that has a lot to do with why “Escape from Camp 14” was chosen as the 2013-2014 University of Houston-Victoria Community of Readers Book.
“The ability of students to put themselves into the situation described in the book is important,” said Amanda Breu, Community of Readers committee chair, and an instruction and outreach librarian at the Victoria College/UHV Library. “This is a closed-off society where brothers rat out family members in hopes it will get them an extra bowl of rice. We felt like this book presented a wealth of learning opportunities.”
All UHV freshmen will receive a free copy of the book as part of the First Year Academic Experience.
The Community of Readers program is designed to establish a common academic experience between first-year students and the larger community by asking everyone to read a book that can provide cross-disciplinary perspectives, generate discussion and foster the exchange of diverse ideas. Lessons from the book are incorporated into class lectures and projects. Book-themed special events or presentations are planned for students and community members during the school year.
Written by Blaine Harden, “Escape from Camp 14” is an account of Shin Dong-hyuk, who is thought to be the only person born and raised in a North Korean political prison camp to escape.
The camps are clearly visible in satellite photos, but North Korea’s government denies they exist. Shin’s camp was established around 1959 and holds an estimated 15,000 prisoners. About 30 miles long and 15 miles wide, it has farms, mines and factories. Torture, starvation, betrayals and executions are a way of life.
The book details how Shin was responsible for the executions of his mother and brother by telling a guard they were planning an escape. Shin admits that he made this trade-off to get more food and an easier job at school. Later chapters share how Shin escaped from the guards. The book then follows his journey to China, Seoul, California and Seattle.
J. Keith Akins, director of the First Year Academic Experience, said the book will lead to a “Freshman Seminar” class conversation about the freedom of dissent – how U.S. citizens are able to speak their minds about political leaders without consequences.
“If we don’t like them, we can vote the leaders out,” Akins said. “Here’s a situation that is not a history lesson. It’s going on today. People who speak out are put away in these hard-labor camps for life. The children are raised just to do hard labor, so the punishment goes on for generations. I want to contrast it to the things we take for granted in our society.”
Breu said the Community of Readers considered 40 books initially and then narrowed it to eight. The 12-member committee read all eight books.
“Every two weeks, we got together to talk about a different book, and what we liked and didn’t like about it,” Breu said. “We talked about how the students will react to it and how it can be used in the Community of Readers.”
Breu said the committee narrowed it down to four books and discussed each finalist, paying particular attention to interdisciplinary academic areas and what potential projects and events could be tied in with the book. Breu said what stood out about “Escape from Camp 14” was it presented a real situation that is still a human rights issue today.
“Political science, ethics, history and philosophies are just some of the academic areas that can be talked about with this book,” Breu said. “In terms of building events, we thought it would be a great way to introduce students to a different culture.”
While the events are in the idea stage for now, one potential tie-in is with the library’s Banned Books Week.
“So much is censored in North Korea in terms of what news gets to the Korean people and what the official Korean news distributes to the outside world,” Breu said. “This presents a great learning opportunity for our students to talk about news, journalism and dissemination.”
Akins said the current political situation in North Korea makes the book choice well timed, though it’s a departure from the last two years when the selections were the fiction books “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War” and “The Hunger Games.”
The results of a Community of Readers survey showed a large percentage of students thought UHV should continue with the book series and that the reading level was just right with “The Hunger Games,” Breu said.
“We took that into consideration,” she said. “We don’t ever start out with our minds made up about whether the book will be fiction, nonfiction, something popular or obscure. We just look at all the suggestions and talk about what will fit the needs of both the students and the program. What we think the students will like is probably our biggest consideration. It’s hard to get students engaged in the speakers and activities if we select a book they don’t like.”
Freshmen will get their copy of “Escape from Camp 14” at the beginning of the fall semester, and other UHV students, faculty and staff can request a free copy by going to the Request a Book link on the Community of Readers website, www.uhv.edu/communityofreaders. Books will be delivered in early fall.
The book also is available for purchase at local and online retail outlets, and copies can be checked out from the Victoria Public Library and the VC/UHV Library.